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Teens & the Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books

Posted May 13 2009 10:14pm

wintergirls There’s a new fiction book out about a teenage girl’s descent into anorexia called Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Apparently it’s causing quite the stir, even though it hasn’t become as popular as other “thinspiration” or “pro-ana” books might be; perhaps it’s too new?

All the same, the general concern in the eating disorder recovery field is that books like these could encourage certain teens to engage in disordered eating behavior, particularly those already predispositioned for perfectionist tendencies.

Some feel books like this — though raw and brutal and unpleasant — end up glorifying EDs for some teens, plunging them headfirst into a world of disordered eating to lose weight, or look better, etc.

Cathy pointed out a recent blog post in the New York Times about the book called “The Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books”.

Since it was really on-message for my blog, I thought I’d share the link with you today to get your feedback. Take a peek and let me know what you think.

I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t really say much about it, but from what I’ve read, I can definitely see why a book like this could encourage some susceptible teens to engage in self-destructive behavior … and it also is another reminder of why parental involvement is so very critical for teens.

(On the flipside, I’d imagine most parents would be in the dark about what their teens are reading nowadays … but perhaps they should know).

The thing is, while eating disorders are often blamed on societal pressures and the media, it’s not the case for everyone; parents can help as best they can, but it’s a psychological illness for many, and one that shouldn’t be treated lightly (neither should bulimia, or binge eating disorder).

A Band-Aid doesn’t cure an eating disorder, especially when there is an underyling problem behind the illness. This is why in-patient treatment is often the final straw; removing the person from all of life’s comforts/discomforts (depending on your frame of mind) in an oftentimes multi-phased effort to recover.

This works for some, but not everyone, as we saw in the HBO documentary, THIN, which I blogged about last fall (including a disclaimer note that the film might be triggering for some.

And while for many it’s a real psychological illness, there are also tons of people who suffer from eating disorders to fit in, to be thin; for vanity purposes.

And it’s for those people that I could see how a book like Wintergirls or a blog entry like mine about THIN could be considered “triggering.”

But really, isn’t everything in life potentially “triggering”?

Holidays and vacations centered around gluttony and over-eating; going to the gym where you see eviable bodies; supermarket or drugstore displays with weight loss supplements and pills; magazines, movies and Web sites that glorify thinness and skin-and-bones … it’s everywhere.

MamaV brought up a good point on her blog recently, when she was accused of showing too many “triggering” images. And I supported her 100 percent. This is the real world. Sheltering our teens or children from images that could trigger them is just unrealistic.

What ever happened to personal responsibility? When is the media not to blame, and when does personal responsibility take over? No one can live in a bubble forever … images and words are everywhere we look today.

So since triggers exist everywhere, does this mean a book like Wintergirls or a film like THIN should be singled out because it could be triggering some young women?

Or is there a bigger picture worth seeing: that these books and films can be used to teach, to educate our teens?

I don’t envy the moms and dads of teens today; teens today are up against way more pressures than they ought to be, and oftentimes the stress and anxiety manifests in an eating disorder.

Sometimes it’s short-lived, and for attention, but usually there’s something deeper at the heart of it, and the longer the illness remains, the harder it is to recover.

Yet turning to an eating disorder as a coping mechanism doesn’t have to be the case, and I believe (to a point) parents can play a role in guiding their teens.

I think it’s important for parents to keep an open, non-judgmental mind — and an open ear — for their teens today. This way, a book like Wintergirls isn’t seen as a trigger, but rather a lesson of “what not to do, how not to live” … and perhaps it could even serve as a real discussion piece, a launching pad, for parents and teens.

( Especially before the teens go away to college and are on their own. No matter how hard you want to fight for them, or put them in a facility … if they’re 18 … they’re legally on their own, and your role as parent becomes diminished).

Call me naïve, but my parents were honest and open with my siblings and I about all the touchy subjects teens typically hate discussing with their parents. Eating disorders were not among them, but had it been an issue at the time, you can bet my parents would have opened that can of worms.

I believe those open lines of communication gave us not only a strong foundation on which to stand during tough times where we had to make decisions on the spot, but also strengthened our relationship as teens and beyond.

Triggers exist everywhere, and we can choose to ignore them … or learn from them. I am curious to read Wintergirls to form my own opinion of how I think it could impact someone else (I realize given the subject of my blog here, that I am prone to disordered eating behavior … so I feel like I’d be a good test case).

The thing is, books and movies and Web sites and magazines aren’t going away. So we need to each choose for ourselves: how can we make peace with them in our lives? Will we stray from certain media, and indulge in others?

Ultimately, like with anything else in life, how we choose to react to an outside stimuli is our own choice, our own doing.

And once we see we are in control … the notion of “trigger” seems less and less scary (at least to me).

Has anyone read Wintergirls? Do you think books like this are triggers for those susceptible to disordered eating, or do you think they can serve the educational role for which they’re intended?

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